If you live in the United States, chances are you’ve had Mexican cuisine where you live. Chances are good that the food you had was actually pretty good, and even further possible that you can name a handful of truly delicious meals you’ve had at such a restaurant.
The chances are slim, however, that what you indulged in what a traditional Mexican dish, but instead an Americanized version of something more simple, more delicious, and fresher than the run-of-the-mill recreations of Mexican cuisine that most American spin-offs attempt. Unless you live in a border town in Texas or New Mexico, you haven’t tasted real Mexican food – and you most certainly haven’t tasted the tradition of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Yucatan cuisine differs greatly from that of the rest of Mexico. While resting firmly on many of the same staples and foundations, including classic starches such as fresh rice and well-seasoned beans, what constitutes these dishes is something that hearkens to a traditions older than modern Mexico, and most certainly the food we know to be Mexican today.
Cuisine in the Yucatan recalls the Mayan history of the area, as well as European and Caribbean influences that add a unique brightness and levity to the culinary art-form throughout the region. Native home to the Mayan civilization, the area hosted Dutch, Spanish, and French explorers who all left behind their own culinary influence that mingled with the native traditions to bring about something unique, and wholly different from the rest of Mexico.
Without further adieu, here are 11 dishes (and one drink!) you should absolutely try when you’re in the Yucatan Peninsula!
Sopa de Lima
Light, fresh, and flavorful – not to mention healthy. While not the first thing you might think of when you consider “Mexican” food, sopa de lima (or lime soup), is uniquely Yucatan and absolutely delicious. Perfect for a quick meal when you simply can’t have any more heavy food, or a break between exploring historical ruins in the Yucatan, sopa de lima is a staple in Yucatan cuisine.
Be mindful if you’re vegetarian, however, as sopa de lima is typically made with chicken broth (and often actual shredded chicken, as pictured).
Also called puerco pibil or cochinita con achiote, this is a traditional Yucatan dish that involves slow-roasted pork, strongly acidic citrus juice, annatto seed and a rich, burnt flavor. You’ll find this delicious treat often served in banana leaf with a side of freshly made corn tortillas for wrapping, similar to a traditional fajita set-up in the U.S.
A locally-made sausage, longanitza is a fatty, rich, and wonderful meat we prefer to chorizo or any other type of sausage. It contains hints of smoke, and is often served as an entree of mixed in with appetizer dips and sauces.
If you’re looking for a light breakfast with oatmeal or scrambled eggs, pass right by the chilaquiles! More appearing like a familiar game or party food, chilaquiles is a nacho based dish with chichen, eggs, onion, cream, cheese, and typically one of either a spicy green or red salsa.
Expect it to bring the heat!
“Fajitas?” I can see the puzzled look on your face. Yet, fajitas in the Yucatan aren’t like anything you’ve had previously.
Instead of the cheese and sour cream-laden dish (which is undeniably tasty) common throughout much of Mexico and the United States, fajitas in the Yucatan don’t come served on a sizzling hot platter. You won’t find the dairy either. Instead, this is a light dish with small-cut chicken breast served with sides of tomatoes, lettuce, guacamole, pickled onions and often radishes.
Despite the difference, it’s delicious, and something you should try if for no other reason than to compare the differences.
One of the signature dishes of the Yucatan, poc chuch is a dish of meat, commonly pork, which is prepared in citrus marinade and cooked over a grill. Poc chuc is often served with a side of rice, pickled onion, refried beans, and avocado or guacamole.
A pumpkin seed based dip, silik pak is something I got absolutely hooked on in the Yucatan. When you need a respite from the constant heat much of the Yucatan food offers, this slightly grainy, mildly smoky dip is great with tortillas and a casual beer – especially if the weather is tame enough to sit outside!
Another great way to try this amazing dish is as a sauce (pictured), which can be used as a topper for enchiladas, tacos, or burritos!
Loosely defined, Xcatic is a locally-grown pepper in the Yucatan that is often used for spices and sauces. Often meats are stewed or braised in this sauce, making for a moist and powerful combination of rich flavors and intense heat.
Try this with chicken for the pollo xcatic version, which is often made with a combination of light and dark meat for maximum flavor profile.
We were introduced to this dish by our friend and travel companion on our latest trip to the Yucatan, Tito Mendez – a Puerto Rico native. This is apparently a common dish in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and in fact much of the Caribbean.
Devil Shrimp is a hot, spicy dish served with steamed shrimp and a flaming hot red sauce. It’s flavorful, deep, and absolutely deserving of its sinister name!
More well-known as queso fundido in the United States and abroad, this is a heated cheese dish used for dipping and most commonly served as an appetizer. In the Yucatan, you can get this plain, with mushrooms (champinones), or with either form of sausage – chorizo or the locally-made longanitza. Our vote? Go with the longanitza. Fatty, rich, thick, and delicious – all the things you want in a delicious delicacy that goes well with a drink on a hot afternoon.
What’s unique about tacos in the Yucatan is both what is present and what isn’t. You won’t find cheeses or creams, but will instead find some of the freshest pico de gallo, onion, and cilantro as a topper you can imagine.
Often these tacos are small, served about palm-size, in counts of typically three with a side of multiple spices and sauces that are all freshly and locally made.
I know, I know… steak is steak. Except, it’s not. I’ve had three steaks in the Yucatan during our time there, and each were among the ten best I’ve ever had. Whether it’s the freshness, the locally grown cattle, the grass-fed product, or magic in the grills, a cut of NY Strip, Skirt or Rib-eye will guarantee to be one of the best meals of your entire trip.
While actually a drink, xtabentun has to be mentioned for its prevalence everywhere in the Yucatan. Xtabentun is as important to the Yucatan as Guinness is to Dublin – seriously.
This anise and honey based liqueur is fermented, not distilled, then capped off by rum to create the formal concoction known as xtabentun. Originally a Mayan ceremonial drink, it’s sweet, strong, and should really only be taken as a cordial or pre-meal aperitif.
While the Yucatan Peninsula shares much with the rest of Mexico from a culinary perspective, it retains its own unique character, flavor profiles, depth, and composition. Explore this regional cuisine, one we consider one of the best in North America, and enjoy the traditions of Yucatan cuisine!